(REVIEW) Watching documentary films is never easy. Oftentimes, documentaries can be both intellectually challenging and culturally enriching — especially if they are about the church and faith.
Over the last couple of decades, documentaries with religious themes usually explore controversial topics and paint a dark picture of an organized religion. Orthodox Christian documentaries have not been part of that trend. Instead of going after the church’s problems, Orthodox filmmakers celebrate the church, the beauty of this ancient faith and the lives of saints.
The majority of Orthodox Christian documentaries are produced in non-English speaking countries such as Russia, Greece and Serbia. With the growth of the Orthodox Church around the globe, English-speaking countries are slowly catching up.
It might come as a surprise that the largest, if not only international Orthodox film festival, known as Byzantfest, takes place every year in Melbourne, Australia. The festival features a variety of films, such as dramas and cartoons. However, documentaries seem to be the main genre.
Orthodox Christian documentaries reflect Orthodox themes, values and beliefs, while analyzing cultural and historical aspects of the faith. They are an excellent way to familiarize yourself with both Eastern Orthodoxy and global Orthodoxy. Many Orthodox documentaries are legally available on the internet on major platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo or Tubi.
Here are five documentaries you should watch this month:
The Monastic Republic of Mount Athos is the most secretive place on the European continent. The Athos peninsula is located in the region of Central Macedonia (Northern Greece). This unique, multinational Orthodox community consists of 20 monasteries (most of them are Greek, but there are also Bulgarian, Serbian and Russian ones) and about 2,000 monks and agricultural/construction workers.
Apart from Vatican City, it is the only European theocratic polity. All of its inhabitants are males, coming from a variety of countries such as Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Serbia and Russia, among others. Mount Athos holds a special autonomous status within the Hellenic Republic. The Monastic Republic has its own parliament and government, following the laws of ancient Byzantium.
Visiting Athos is strictly regulated and requires a special visa (known as Diamonitirion) that is only granted to pilgrims and workers. Women are not allowed to visit the territory of Athos.
The history of Athos, its importance in the Orthodox world and its mystery earn this documentary a special place in the Orthodox cinematography. For the first time, a filmmaker was given access to all forms of monasticism on the Holy Mount. This documentary gives an unprecedented insight into the daily lives of monks, evoking what St. Nikolai Velimirovich of Zhicha wrote about Athos: “It is an empire without a crown, a nation without army, a country without women, wealth without money, wisdom without education.”
‘Hello Orthodox!’ (2021)
“Hello Orthodox!” tells a story of Metropolitan Amphilochios of New Zealand’s decade-long mission to bring Orthodox Christianity to the Pacific islands of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Amphilochios’ hard work has yielded results. As a result, the Orthodox community in Fiji has been flourishing.
In little over 10 years, approximately 400 Fijians have been baptized and received into the Orthodox Church. The demographic influx led to the establishment of four churches, a female monastery, an orphanage with capacity for 30 children and a mission center on the island. Four Indigenous locals have been ordained and became Orthodox priests, while there are two Fijian nuns.
Success of the Orthodox Apostolic Mission in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa brought American missionaries, the Jones family, to the islands. Last year, Religion Unplugged published a story about the Joneses: From Alaska to Fiji, exploring their spiritual journey that led them to the Pacific islands.
“Hello Orthodox!” is a documentary that briefly features Michael Jones and his pictures from the 2020 trip to Tonga, which were just the beginning of his family’s missionary work in the region. The film won the award for the best documentary at the Byzanfest 2021 film festival sponsored by the University of Saint Katherine.
‘Faces Among Icons’ (2017)
As former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin used to say, “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”
In 1917, while Europe was being destroyed by war, two significant historical events occurred on two sides of the old continent: the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the Fatima apparitions in Portugal.
“Faces Among Icons” reminds us of these two events and their relationship. Some Orthodox might be skeptical about this documentary because it was produced by Catholic News Service. However, at the start of the film, Catholic Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Moscow says that “we should not interpret Our Lady of Fatima as foretelling
the conversion of Russia to Catholicism.”
In this documentary, Russian Orthodox believers from all walks of life discuss the state of their church and its position in society some 100 years after the Bolshevik Revolution. “Faces Among Icons” provides a brief historical overview of the Soviet prosecution of the Russian church while detailing the resurrection of Orthodox Christianity in the country in recent decades. This film also analyzes the position of the Russian church in society and its relationship with the government.
Besides churchgoers, academics and clergy, the documentary features important figures like Metropolitan Hilarion, former head of external affairs of the Moscow Patriarchate; Aleksandr Dugin, a Russian intellectual known as Vladimir Putin’s brain; and Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch sanctioned by the United States. This gives us a brief, but valuable, look at Moscow’s elite and their thinking.
In a short segment, Dugin describes Putin as a figure fighting against the Western values of secularism, atheism and the Antichrist. The other segments of the film might explain the position of the Russian church toward the current war in Ukraine, which makes this documentary worth watching.
With the demographic boom, Africa’s importance in Christendom has significantly increased in recent years. The Catholic Church thinks of the African continent as its future bastion. But Orthodox churches also understand the role Africa will play in global Christianity in decades to come.
For the last couple of years, Africa has been a battleground between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian church, which established a Patriarchal Exarchate in Africa of more than 100 clerics of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
News of mass baptism and conversion to Orthodoxy in countries like Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya has become common. This trend shows that Orthodox Christianity is not an ethnocentric religion, like its critics claim, and “Kananga” is a documentary that shows us exactly that.
Kananga is a city in the central region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country rich in minerals but destroyed by wars and poverty. Kananga has also been described as one of the most dangerous places in the world. More than 50 years ago, two Greek priests embarked on a journey to Kananga to plant an Orthodox mission. They planted the seed that brought faith and hope to the war-torn community.
Now, the work of the mission is spread across the country, leading to the construction of churches and the establishment of free schools. The documentary follows the mission’s tireless efforts, detailing the role of faith in the lives of local Orthodox people, who face poverty and famine everyday. Kananga shows us how Orthodoxy helps these people cope with their grim reality by providing them hope.
The documentary mentions an anecdote. In 1991, local guerillas invaded the mission to plunder it. However, the guerilla fighters remembered that the Greek Orthodox mission was the only one that didn’t have any financial or political involvement. After that realization, they apologized and left. This short but memorable story speaks volumes about the mission’s work and reputation among the locals.
“Kananga” is a must-watch for everyone who wants to understand African Orthodoxy.
‘Parallel Love: The Story of a Band Called Luxury’ (2021)
Described by critics as unpredictable, vibrant and full of surprises, “Parallel Love” tells a story of Luxury, a rock band from the small Georgian town of Toccoa. On the verge of greatness, members of Luxury end up in a car accident that changes their life paths forever.
The documentary combines archival footage and interviews exploring the history of the band and the extraordinary journey of faith. After the accident, some members of the band began to explore spirituality, which led to them to convert to Orthodox Christianity. Eventually, three out of five band members went on to become Orthodox Christian priests.
The Luxury band still performs. It is interesting to see how band members pray and bless the studio before they record a new album. “Parallel Love” is indeed an exciting story about the band that escaped tragedy, gave up fame, came to faith and became rock ’n’ roll Orthodox priests.
There is always time for a good documentary. What is your favorite documentary about Orthodox Christianity? Share it with us in the comments below.